Over the last several years, the horticulture community has increasingly emphasized the practice of right plant right place
. Fundamental to this concept, is using a plant that will thrive without changing the environment to meet the plants' needs. "Right plants" are inherently low maintenance because: they require little or no irrigation, fertilizer, pesticide, or pruning and digging to keep them from overgrowing an area. So how does bamboo stack up against these criteria?
You need to consider several factors when choosing the "right plant", including: hardiness, soil and nutrient requirements, drought/soggy soil tolerance, and space requirements. West of the Cascades in USDA zone 7-8, there are over 200 bamboos ranging in size from dwarf to forest giant, that are hardy, and adaptable to most soils and growing conditions. So, whether you need a ground cover, low hedge, tall screen, accent plant or canopy plant, chances are there's a bamboo suited to the soils and sun exposure of a given site. But there's more to it than just that.
Right Place - Location, Location, Location!
You also need to consider the location of the plant, in terms of space requirements. If you are constantly digging, pulling whacking and chopping to keep a bamboo from overgrowing its bed, its not a "right place" candidate. How much space you need for a particular bamboo depends a lot on the mature height and spread of the bamboo. For most urban and suburban gardens, many of the clumping bamboos will meet right plant right place criteria, as long as you provide a bed with a minimum width and length of 5'. For most gardens, the running bamboos spread too aggressively to be considered the right plant in the right place. But hey, that doesn't mean you can't grow them.
Right Plant - Right Person
Some of the most wonderful and memorable gardens I've seen are full of very high-maintenance "wrong place" plants, including their lush green lawns! When it comes to bamboo, be aware that all of the big timber bamboos, the ground cover bamboos, and most of the shrub-size bamboos are potentially invasive. They are totally worth growing! But, they will need a very large area to grow into, or you will have to do rhizome pruning religiously to keep them from grow
ing in all sorts of undesirable places.
So, if you just gotta' have that timber bamboo in your garden, be advised, and be realistic. If you enjoy gardening, and you're the type that putters in the yard with your spare time, running bamboos won' be a problem to contain. If you don't have time for gardening, or just don't want to, then you are better off with clumping bamboo. You can also find gardeners that specialize in bamboo maintenance (like me) that will do some or all of the work if you're unable or unwilling to.